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This Halloween, ‘Know Your Rights’

16 min read

As we come to the home stretch for the Athens Halloween Block Party, Student Legal Services Managing Attorney Patrick McGee would like students to know their rights and assert them when needed.

The Center for Student Legal Services is a non-profit organization committed to representing students in both criminal and civil matters. For students, those cases most often involve crimes related to alcohol consumption, which Halloween in Athens is notorious for. Last year, police reported about 50 arrests and 46 medical calls, most of which were alcohol related.

The rights students are most often unaware of pertain to the fourth and fifth amendments. According to McGee, students often self-incriminate because they are unaware of their rights when confronted by a police officer.

“Students tend to think that if they are confronted by the police, that their options are either to tell the truth, like they’ve been told to do by their parents, or to lie,” McGee said.  “They never really fall into the category of, ‘Well I really don’t have to answer these questions, I really don’t have to cooperate.’”

For example, if an officer confronts a student that they suspect is underage and has been drinking or has alcohol in their possession, they are not required to produce an I.D., based on a law passed that says you must identify yourself and your age, unless it could lead to your conviction.

McGee explained that if you are in a public place you must give your name and your address, but you do not have to give your age.

“The officer could continue to badger the person by saying, ‘Are you sure?’ until the student breaks down. The student is unaware that they don’t have to incriminate themselves,” McGee said. He suggests that the student say, “I am not comfortable talking about this without my attorney present.”

After asserting his or her right not to self-incriminate, the student, according to McGee, must take one step further to assert their independence by asking, “am I free to go?”

“It’s a very simple expression; anything to terminate the conversation,” said McGee. “Shut it down right then and there.”

This puts the officer in the position of either leaving the student alone or arresting the student without sufficient evidence to convict. But, McGee said, students should be clear that the officer is likely to arrest them, as the officer will assume the student does not know his or her rights.

“Until we can train the police to respect the rights of students, that’s how it’s going to be,” he said.

McGee said that students are often unaware that they cannot be legally searched without a warrant or consent until after they are arrested, according to the Fourth Amendment.

“Students often will just cave in there and allow searches with no reason they should have,” said McGee, elaborating on private property searches. “The typical case is that the police officer will knock on the door and say, ‘I smell marijuana, can I come in?’ or ‘Bring it out to me.’ Most seasoned criminals would laugh at that. Most people with more experience with law enforcement would laugh at that.”

McGee acknowledged that though the students are breaking the law, it is more important to protect the students’ rights, as they are protected by the Constitution.

“The interesting thing is that here I am telling students that they should assert their rights, but at the same time they’re breaking the law. Everyone knows they’re breaking the law,” he said. “But the one thing you have to keep in mind is that everything in our system works around one thought, and it’s a pretty well-established thought, that the police are more dangerous than the criminal, especially a college student.”

“So if we give the police the unlimited right to interrogate citizens, and the unlimited right to search your home, then I suspect that a lot of us are going to be unhappy with that, not just students who are under 21.”

Chair of the CSLS Board of Director Tracy Kelly said students are often shocked to be treated assertively by the police.

“But in the eyes of an officer, you’ve been breaking the law and they think you’re a criminal,” said Kelly. “So I think students aren’t prepared for that assertive behavior and it can be hard for them to stay calm, behave responsibly and articulate their rights.

Halloween brings in several different police agencies, with a range of different police officers, such as horse cops, police on bicycles and police on foot.

If a student feels they are unsafe or need information, they have alternatives to police officers, such as volunteers known as both Green and White Jackets – consisting of faculty, staff, students and community members. The volunteers are not there to get the student in trouble with the authorities unless it is absolutely necessary.

Professor Natalie Shubert, who is volunteering as a Green Jacket, said, “What’s most important is that students understand Green Jackets are there for information – towing companies, for example – and not as law enforcement. We want to help everyone have as safe and as good of a time as possible.”

The Athens City Court House will also have a tent stationed in front of the building with information of students who have been brought into custody. Students can go here to find friends or inquire about a student they cannot get into contact with.

McGee said the main tip he gives students on Halloween is not to argue with the officer, under any circumstances. If you are being arrested, let the officer process you. If the officer is arresting a friend of yours, offer to meet the person at the police station.

If you do argue with an officer, McGee warns, “The officers are not going to listen to you and they don’t want to hear it.”

McGee also advises to stay with a group of people, if only for the sake of having witnesses, and to use discretion.

McGee elaborated that students can get into more trouble this year on Halloween then years past, as Judge Gary Herman is shifting to harsher punishments for second and repeat offenders.

“He wants to shift from allowing students to do work release or electronic monitor to putting people in jail for two days to get the lesson out that students better start taking him seriously,” said McGee. “I think he’s missed the boat.”

After already being arrested, McGee says to call the CSLS office as soon as they open and to plead not guilty. The CSLS office, located above College Bookstore on Court Street, sees an average of eight students a day, unless they experience “a rush,” such as a fest weekend, says McGee.

CSLS has been around for over 20 years, providing representation for students for a small fee that students are able to waive during registration.

“We are making a real effort to protect the rights of students and from what I see is that unfortunately because of the economy students are choosing to waive their fee and saying they don’t need this service, totally unaware to the extent of the services we provide,” said McGee. He explained that new software used by the university is set up in a way that may encourage students to waive the fee.

Still, after already waiving the fee, if a student finds him- or herself in need of legal services, the student can pay a more costly fee and receive the service.

Along with student representation, CSLS offers services such as free lease reviews and doing presentations about student legal rights. According to Kelly, civil attorney Melissa Greenlee saved over $40,000 for students regarding off-campus housing.

Kelly emphasized that CSLS is willing to give presentations to any residence hall or organization.

However, CSLS does not deal with university judiciaries.

McGee has expressed that the university has pushed the bounds of double jeopardy. Often times, students will receive punishment – court fees and fines, community service and probation – from the state and then are also punished by the university in similar ways. Students may even win their case against the state and still be punished by university judiciaries.

Students should be aware that if they get in trouble, they might be punished by both the state and the university. McGee says he constantly handles cases where a student’s rights have been violated.

“Fortunately, I handle very few cases where a student actually asserts their rights and then gets them violated,” said McGee. “What I handle time after time after time are cases where the student, even if I’ve talked to them, will basically cave in and give the information without asserting their rights.”


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